On The Eleventh Minute Of the Eleventh Hour Of The Eleventh Day Of The Eleventh Month

On the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918, the armistice between the Allies and Germany took effect, and World War I thereby ended. Ever since, the Allied nations have remembered that day–known as Remembrance Day in France, Belgium, and the British Commonwealth nations, and first as Armistice Day, and later as Veterans Day, in the United States. By tradition, those countries observe a moment of silence on the eleventh minute of the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month to commemorate the fallen and the wounded.

Why all the elevens? It’s pretty clear that the armistice wasn’t delayed in order to achieve a symmetry of numbers; both the Allies and their opponents were exhausted and depleted by years of bloody fighting and were more than ready for it to stop as soon as possible. In fact, many of the opposing powers–including the Ottoman Empire, the Austro-Hungarian empire, and Bulgaria–had reached armistices with the Allies before November 11; only Germany was a holdout. The armistice with the German Empire was finally reached at 5:10 a.m. on November 11 and was to take effect at 11 a.m., to allow the news and cease fire orders to be transmitted to the troops on the front line.

By then, choosing the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month as the time for the fighting to stop must have had a poetic quality that was impossible to resist. The concept of the “eleventh hour” as the very last point at which something can be done has long been a part of western civilization. It finds its roots in the parable of the workers in the vineyard, recounted in Matthew 20:1-16. Those hired early in the day agreed to work for a denarius a day and, after working for a full day, were upset when those hired later in the day–including at the eleventh hour–were paid the same amount. (For those unfamiliar with the parable, the vineyard owner holds the early workers to their agreement and says he gets to decide what to do with his money and concludes with the phrase: “For many are called, but few are chosen,” which also became a well-known phrase.)

By the time November 11, 1918 arrived, the participants in World War I probably felt that they had reached the last point at which something could be salvaged. By then, millions of soldiers and civilians had died in what was easily the bloodiest war ever fought to that point, and many of those who survived were left horribly wounded by gas attacks, lost body parts, and the traumas of trench warfare and shell shock. Dynasties were toppled, and the old ways of fighting gave way to the new, with World War I ushering in the era of tanks, and aerial warfare, and poison gas. By the time the war ended entire generations had been brutally decimated, and the desperate participants no doubt wondered why they had decided to fight the pointless war in the first place.

In short, they had reached their “eleventh hour.” It seems fitting that that is when the war effectively ended.

They Shall Not Grow Old

World War I ended just over 100 years ago.  There are some people who were living during the years of the Great War who remain alive today.  Somehow, though, World War I seems to belong to a much more distant past.  A war in which the primary modes of transportation were horses and steam engines, between countries governed by kings, kaisers, czars, and sultans, seems to belong in the 19th century, not the 20th.  The existence of only scratched, herky-jerky footage of men marching in strange uniforms doesn’t help to give the war any more modern immediacy, either.

THEY SHALL NOT GROW OLDThey Shall Not Grow Old takes dead aim at the last point.  It brings the men who fought in the Great War for Great Britain into closer focus — and puts them in a light that the people of the 21st century can understand.

Filmmaker Peter Jackson was given access to more than 100 hours of film shot by the British that has been gathering dust in the British War Museum and, as he explains in his introduction to the film, was told that his assignment was to do something different with it.  He looked at hours of scratched, often overexposed or underexposed film, shot at different speeds by hand-cranked cameras, and initially was at a loss about how to approach the assignment.  But he decided to apply modern technology, computer imaging, and careful colorizing techniques, and the results are jaw-dropping.  Forget the scratchy, blurred, quick-stepping soldiers you remember, and be prepared for a movie that brings those soldiers to life.  (If you go to see the film this weekend, you’ll also have a chance to watch a very interesting 30-minute film after the credits have run, in which Jackson explains how the refurbishing of the film was done and also shows that he has an amazing collection of World War I uniforms, weapons, and other memorabilia.)

The technology employed isn’t the only thing that distinguishes They Shall Not Grow Old from other documentaries.  If you’re expecting any kind of narrative arc that explains the causes of World War I, the alliances, the kings and czars and assassinated archdukes that triggered a senseless global conflict — or, for that matter, attempts to establish any kind of broader historical context — you’ll be disappointed.  The film’s focus is on the soldiers, period, and is narrated using clips of BBC interviews of Great War veterans that were conducted decades ago.  We see, and hear, why they enlisted, how they were trained, what they ate, how they performed other bodily functions, and what it was like when they went home — but mostly, about life in the front lines in one of the most brutal, deadly wars ever fought.  Be prepared to learn about the horrors of rats, and lice, and trench foot, and frostbite, and mustard gas, and brace yourself for footage of insects crawling on the bodies of dead humans and horses alike.  (And Americans should also get ready for some close-up exposure to human teeth the likes of which you’ve never seen before.)

Not surprisingly, many of the images are immensely powerful.  I won’t soon forget the hopelessly terrified, blank face face of one young soldier, eyes bulging with intense fear, moments before a big battle that he knew he wasn’t likely to survive, or a soldier in the aftermath of a battle clutching a small dog to his chest and possessively stroking its fur, or a battle-scarred veteran walking away from the front lines, right hand shaking uncontrollably.  And the footage of soldiers passing the time, and mugging for cameras that were a novelty in those days — such as the soldiers who gave the impromptu concert pictured above, in which one of them strummed a beer bottle — will change your view of these young men, so that you never again think of them as ancient, herky-jerky marchers from a forgotten earlier day.

The title of the film comes from a line in the poem For the Fallen by Laurence Binyon, which was written in 1914 in the early days of the war.  The particular verse reads:

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old: 
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn. 
At the going down of the sun and in the morning 
We will remember them.
They Shall Not Grow Old helps to bring that sentiment to reality.  It’s well worth the price of a movie ticket.

A Return To Normalcy

Ninety six years ago this month, in Ohio Senator Warren G. Harding’s successful campaign for the presidency, he gave a famous speech about how, in the wake of World War I and the negotiation of the ultimately disastrous Versailles treaty and the invasion of the deadly Spanish flu and countless reform measures enacted by Woodrow Wilson and the progressives, what America really needed was a “return to normalcy.”

1145-004-a9d837e7Harding’s speech drew a lot of criticism from the intelligentsia, who noted that “normalcy” wasn’t even a word until then.  But it was Harding, not the sophisticates, who had accurately assessed the national mood, and the common folks got the point that he was trying to make.  They were tired of disruption and wanted nothing more than a chance to go back to the way things were, and they voted for him in one of the greatest landslides in American politics.  (Three years later, Harding was dead of a massive cerebral hemorrhage, his personal affairs became the talk of Washington, and now his administration is generally regarded as one of the most corrupt and scandal-filled in history, adding to the Buckeye State’s generally crappy record when it comes to Presidents.)

I thought of poor old Warren G. today, when — after long weeks of dust in the air and on everything, of workers stripping out the old, tiling, sanding, installing, and painting, I was finally able to take a steaming hot shower in our freshly remodeled upstairs bathroom.  Sure, I admit that not having an upstairs bathroom doesn’t really compare to the doughboys marching off to fight in the Great War and a global pandemic and the bloody end to countless monarchies, but I felt a desire for a return to normalcy nevertheless.

Warren G. Harding may have been an inept leader and a cad, but at least he could put his finger on an important concept.  I’ll be glad to get back to the way things were.

In Flanders Fields

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved, and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands, we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

In Flanders Fields was written by a Canadian battle surgeon, Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, M.D., during the Second Battle of Ypres in 1915.  It was one of the most terrible, bloody, senseless battles in a terrible, bloody, senseless war, as poison gas drifted across the trench lines and tens of thousands of soldiers were killed or wounded during days of fighting.  The poem McCrae wrote captures the physical and emotional exhaustion he felt — yet still McCrae wanted others to fight to ensure that the dead did not die in vain.  McCrae ultimately died, of pneumonia, during the early days of 1918 as World War I dragged on with no apparent end in sight.

McCrae’s poem, and its duality, is worth remembering on this Memorial Day.  We cannot drop the torch, but we need to make sure that the torch is carried forward into battle only when our national security truly requires it.  We cannot afford to senselessly bury young men and women beneath Flanders Fields.

Biplanes Are Cool

When we landed on our flight in from Pelee Island this morning, the Griffing Flying Service field in Sandusky, Ohio was covered with brightly colored planes.  Chapter 50 of the Experimental Aircraft Association was having its fly in, drive in pancake breakfast — which meant we had to take a closer look at some of the planes.

There were lots of cool planes there, including some vintage aircraft.  My favorites, however, are the biplanes, with their parallel wings and struts and open cockpits.  I’ve loved them since I was a kid and read a book about World War I aviators called Knights Of The Air.  No Red Barons were visible during our visit, however — or goggles-wearing beagles, either.

Syria On The Brink Of Chaos

It’s bad in Syria, and it seems to be getting worse. This is not good news for the United States, or the world.

Fighting between Syrian government troops and rebels apparently is raging across the country.    The rebels are reporting that 95 people were killed in clashes that reached the suburbs of Damascus.  Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is clinging desperately to power while the international community debates how to proceed and whether to approve a UN resolution that calls upon Assad to step down and hand power to a deputy.  Russia and the United States are on opposite sides of the issue, and Iran, as always, is a wild card.

These are perilous times in the Middle East.  Old governments have fallen, Islamist groups have assumed power in formerly secular states like Egypt, and the United States is trying to redefine its role.  Any kind of armed conflict could spill over into other countries, further destabilizing the region.

Assad obviously is not a significant historical figure — but he could become one if his downfall leads to broad-scale conflict in the Middle East.  No one today would remember Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand but for his assassination, which plunged the nations of Europe into the First World War.

The Last Doughboy

Frank Buckles died on Sunday, at age 110.  Buckles was America’s last surviving World War I veteran.  He enlisted at age 16, after lying to a recruiting officer about his age, and served as a clerk and ambulance driver in England and France.  The Washington Post reports that, with Buckles’ death, only two of the 65 million people who served in World War I are still living.

There is something terribly final about the death of the last human being to personally experience a war.  With Buckles’ passing, we lose the last American who was there during the awful carnage of trench warfare, the horrors of poison gas attacks, and the deadly charges across no man’s land into the teeth of barbed wire, machine gun bullets, and fortified bunkers.  No more Americans will be personally tormented by nightmares of the deaths of their comrades during The Great War.

With the severing of the last human links to the fighting, World War I moves from the realm of personal experience to the exclusive province of historians.  They will argue about tactics, and great historical forces, and issues like how the war could have been avoided and whether the German side could have prevailed had it acted differently.  Eventually a war in which millions of people participated and millions died, a war which saw the development of new weapons like the airplane and the tank — a war that participants thought was surely The War To End All Wars — will become as abstract, dusty, and inexplicable as the Hundred Years’ War, the War of Jenkins’ Ear, or the War of Austrian Succession.  Frank Buckles’ passing takes us one step closer to that reality.

Public Art At The Ohio Statehouse (IV)

The west entrance to the Ohio Statehouse is flanked by two large statues with military themes:  a World War I doughboy to the North, and a Spanish-American War ranger to the South.

The doughboy statue was erected in 1930 and is the work of Arthur Ivone. Like so many military statues, the doughboy features a plaque that expresses hope for peace.  The plaque states:  “To justice in war and lasting peace after victory.”

Although the statue depicts a soldier in full uniform and battle helmet, standing with a rifle, the soldier is in a curiously unmilitary pose.  He stands with one on hand on hip, holding the muzzle of the rifle while the butt rests against the ground.  In short, the soldier looks like he is about to do a quick pirouette on a fashion runway, or perhaps a few high kicks in a Parisian can-can line.  He would fit easily into the classic Monty Python skit about the dancing British soldiers.

The statute to the south, called “the Spirit of ’98,” is dedicated to veterans of the Spanish-American War, the “Philippine Insurrection,” and the “China Relief Expedition.”  The statue is the work of IL Jirush and was erected in 1928.  It depicts a ranger leaning forward with his uniform sleeves rolled up past his elbows, one foot on an outcropping of rock, the barrel of his rifle pointed downward, looking intently into the distance from beneath the brim of a floppy field hat.

The plaque on the base of this statue expresses somewhat more martial sentiments than those found on its companion.  It refers to “Freedom, Patriotism, Humanity” and includes the quotation “The cause which triumphed through their valor will live.”  When the plaque is considered now, decades later, it is not entirely clear what “cause” will live on — unless it is the “cause” of imperialism in which a brawny young country, eager to shoulder its way onto the world stage, briefly engaged.

Public Art At The Ohio Statehouse (III)

Public Art At The Ohio Statehouse (II)

Public Art At The Ohio Statehouse (I)

Veterans’ Day

November 11 is known as Veterans’ Day in America, Armistice Day in England, and Remembrance Day in Australia. All three holidays commemorate the end of World War I — the Great War — on November 11, 1918 and the sacrifices of soldiers in the later wars that have occurred since the War to End All Wars.

A cemetery at Gallipoli

This BBC story reports on observations of the holiday across the globe and notes that there remains one surviving British veteran of World War I, who lives in a nursing home in Australia. He did not participate in any celebration of the holiday because, his family says, he opposes the glorification of war. His reaction is not surprising. Fighting in any war must be a wrenching, awful experience, but World War I, like the Civil War before it, was almost unimaginably bloody and horrible. Entire generations of British, French, German, and Russian men were mowed down by machine guns, blown apart by artillery, and impaled on barbed wire as they tried to attack fortified trench positions of the enemy over the desolate waste of No Man’s Land. Revisiting those painful scenes, even after the passage of 90 years, must be unbearable.

Today we remember those veterans who served, and fought, and sacrificed, and we thank those soldiers who currently serve and protect our nation.